You know it's time for SXSW to be over when even a Yoko Ono show is full of pushy, angry people and there's a riot happening just outside. The iconic professor of peace did her best to reach out to the tired audience, peering out over a pair of dark oval sunglasses to peer into the eyes of the people standing in the front rows while grinning a sweet smile. Dressed in all black with a white scarf tied around her neck and a black wide-brimmed hat, and galloping around the stage like a spry little cowgirl, Ono looked pretty pleased to be playing a show in Texas.
"I wasn't trying to wear a cowboy hat," she joked between sets, taking off her hat and throwing it into the crowd. "This is just so nobody will wear the same hat as me."
Ono was backed by her Plastic Ono Band, which for this show included her son Sean Lennon (who also acted as a sort of ringleader for the evening, emceeing between acts decked out in top hat and long black marching band jacket), guitar player Nels Cline of Wilco, and drummer Greg Saunier of Deerhoof, among others. The band sounded tight and punchy, despite Lennon explaining that they tried to play each song like they had never rehearsed it before.
"Don't rehearse it," Ono said to him, wagging her finger, then looked out into the audience. "Don't you rehearse it in your mind, either."
"That's assuming I have a mind," Lennon replied, some sort of inside joke that was either too deep or too flippant for anyone in the room to understand.
While the band played on behind her, Ono gave a performance that was raw, primal, and unnerving, yelping and stuttering into the microphone in an abrasive style that clashed sharply with her demure, cute stage presence. It's been established that Ono is something of a free spirit, but watching her perform was downright mesmerizing; when the group delved into some more experimental improvisational moments, it was like watching Ono front a noise band.
The band dug deep into Ono's catalog for their set list, opening with "No No No" and then going back to Ono's very first solo song from her debut album, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, with "Why." They wrapped up the set with "It's Been Very Hard," and it was a long, bluesy jam with dual guitar solos by Lennon and Cline and Ono doing her best Janis Joplin (though singing about two octaves higher), swiveling her hips seductively as she sang.
Prior to Ono's set, Lennon invited Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner of tUnE-yArDs to perform a rendition of Ono's "We're All Water," complete with their signature vocal loops and tribal, syncopated drum beats. "I feel incredibly blessed and lucky, this is one of my favorite bands on the planet," Lennon stressed both before and after tUnE-yArDs played, and they surely gained a few new fans with their righteous cover of the song.
The Plastic Ono Band invited tUnE-yArDs back to the stage for the first encore along with the the other openers from the evening for a huge lovefest to "Dream #9," with Ono dressed in a teal blouse and top hat.
"I love you, I love you," Ono said to the crowd. "Just remember we're all together."
Though it didn't look like the band was planning on coming back for more, the crowd kept clapping until Ono re-emerged once again. For her finale, she played a slow, dreamy track, "The Sun is Rising," looking out over a sea of hands forming peace signs and smiling sleepily.
Ono has taken a lot of flack over the years for a lot of different and sometimes ridiculous reasons, but I found her to be incredibly sincere. Even at her most hippie-dippy moments, you can tell she really believes what she's saying and has a great deal of compassion for everyone and everything around her. Watching her live was quite surreal indeed, especially tucked into the corner of a small club like the Elysium, and it was an experience I would take over the flashy Kanye circus happening on the other side of the city any day of the week.